7 Ideas for Tackling Tough Conversations

Dear Val,

I sit right across from a coworker who frequently thinks out loud by talking to me whenever she feels like it. It might be helping her, but it sure isn’t helping me—it really slows down my productivity and ability to think for myself! I need more quiet in order to work.

I listen a little because I want to get along with my work neighbor, but sometimes I just turn away. Still, she is not getting the message. She talks and talks.

I want her to stop doing this so much, but I can’t think of a way to ask for what I need without coming off as rude or antisocial. I tend to shy away from rocking the boat, but I know it’s a problem for me.

Any ideas? 

~Shhhh in Seattle

Dear Shhhh,

Hmm, you’ve got quite the mismatch between your work style and your colleague’s work style. I feel for you. And I’ve been there. Close quarters without enough quiet can be hard on us introverts.

I understand that you want to get your work done and you want to get along with your coworker. Both of those needs are important, and they seem contradictory to you right now. There is a way, however, to have some quiet and still be friendly.

Concentration Differences for Introverts and Extroverts

Many introverts find it tough to be productive if there isn’t enough quiet. Many extroverts, on the other hand, need to talk out loud in order to think clearly and be productive. No one is right or wrong—we’re just different.

That difference is what’s playing out with your coworker: your productivity needs are different from her productivity needs. Even though both your needs are totally normal and valid, that doesn’t mean they work well together. That’s why a conversation here is so necessary.

Tips for Delicate Conversations

You can say what you need in a way that feels kind to your coworker—something she is likely to respond well to.

Here are some tips for initiating a productive and kind conversation:

  1. Picture the best in her. Remind yourself of some things you like about your coworker. That positive energy will help you relax.
  2. Step into her shoes. Imagine that she might feel confused seeing you turn away sometimes. Now you’re in an open-hearted place to begin a conversation that you’ll both feel good about.
  3. Get clear on your needs. Your underlying need is to have quiet in order to focus on your work. When you’re clear on that specific need, and how much quiet time you want, you can bring it up with your coworker and find a solution together. People are much more open to helping solve a problem when they know the underlying need. If you go straight to a request, the other party will feel like they’re being told to change for no clear reason.
  4. Avoid blaming her. Make sure you are claiming your need as your own, as opposed to saying she should change. There’s nothing wrong with your coworker—lots of other people might enjoy a chatty work environment. By framing this problem as your need, you avoid putting her on the defensive.
  5. “Sandwich” the hard stuff with the positive. It might be hard for her to hear that she has done something that isn’t working for you. To make it easier for both of you, sandwich the hard part with something positive on both sides of it. In other words, open with some kind of honest appreciation, and close with something positive.
  6. Ask about her needs too. You’ll be able to create a solution together if she has a voice as well. I imagine she’ll realize that she prefers to talk through her thoughts throughout her work day. (But it doesn’t have to be with you.)
  7. Find a solution together. Now that you are both clear on what each person would like, an obvious solution will probably arise. For instance, she might think of someone else she can talk to. Maybe desks could be moved so you sit somewhere quiet and she is near someone who enjoys talking more. 

Put it all together, and here’s how it might sound when you first bring it up:

“I appreciate that you answer questions for me sometimes, and I’m happy to help you out too. To concentrate well on my work, I need long stretches of quiet. I would like to talk through this with you, including hearing what you need, and then let’s come up with a solution that works for both of us. Does that sound okay to you?”

If the conversation doesn’t help resolve things, you still have other options. You’re well within your rights to seek help from your manager. Maybe you could request a desk change or ask to work from home. More and more companies are starting to understand that many people need quiet in order to be productive.

I’ve heard from many people who have been surprised by how much their managers wanted to help find the best fit for their needs. After all, they want you to be productive.

I know there are some bosses who just don’t seem to care, and that’s when you can start a new fashion trend with a sparkly pair of headphones. When I worked in a noisy cubicle environment, I eventually had to take the leap and get a new job. I bet negotiating your space will go more easily for you.

Readers, I’m sure some of you have dealt with the same issue. What has worked for you?

Share your thoughts.

Let’s keep our discussions reflective, productive, and welcoming. Please follow our Community Guidelines and understand that we moderate comments and reserve the right to delete comments that don’t adhere to our guidelines. You must sign in or sign up to comment.

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  219. machiel says:

    The best solution I found so far is: http://www.noisli.com/ + headphones.

  220. L S Miranda says:

    I once worked for a design firm where about 20 people worked in one large room. No cubicles, just desks. The very first day, one of the principles explained to me that there were benefits and drawbacks to this arrangement. One of the benefits was that the younger staff would be privy to phone conversations between principles and clients and would gain insight into office business. One of the drawbacks, especially for princiiples, was that they were constantly being sidelined to answer questions. As the office had a ‘if you don’t know what it is, you shouldn’t draw it’ policy, it was inevitable that questions came up on a regular basis. We were encouraged to work as long as we could by keeping a list of questions and try to schedule a regular time for review with the head of the project. If we went to the principle’s desk, and we were ignored, it just meant that, for whatever reason, we should consider that a ‘door closed’ situation and come back at another time. The principles were very good at enforcing this, and after a few weird moments, I got used to it. Not everyone can pull this off, but in our own firm we have encouraged staff to keep a running list of questions rather than constantly interrupting. Then it’s up to the other person to provide a regular (and reasonable) time for feedback. Even though the two people in this article seem on the same level, it can work then as well. It’s up to them to enforce their boundaries.

  221. Iffah Suraya Jasni says:

    Starbucks!

  222. From an old TV Show called “WKRP in Cincinnati” I think of what I call Les Nessman’s walls. Les put masking tape on the floor to indicated the imaginary door and walls to his non-existant office. He insisted that people knock before disturbing him. It established a boundary in a playful way that everyone eventually honored. I wonder if Shhhh could do that same – find a lighthearted solution to what seems like a tense situation.

  223. Mari says:

    I had an extroverted friend (take note, I said “had”) who constantly texted me during the day at work and phoned me in the evenings. I did not mind that, but the problem was that she could not have a conversation for shorter than at least an hour at a time. I started studying part time and could really not afford to spend an hour with her on the phone almost every evening. One day I listened to her for a while and then said very kindly that I’m sorry, but I have to carry on with my study work, we can chat again some other time. Since then she has totally cut me out. She never contacts me and when I contact her she is very short with me. The relationship we had is now very strained. I approached her once to ask if anything was wrong and if she still wanted to be friends. She said everything is fine, and she didn’t know what I was talking about, but her attitude has not changed. I think it was totally within my right to ask for a little space while I’m busy studying, but she clearly does not feel the same way. She is constantly posting messages on Facebook on how she does not run after people anymore and she must be accepted the way she is. Now I’m starting to doubt myself. Was I wrong?

    • Val Nelson says:

      @disqus_Gb9lis2vEm:disqus, that sounds like a tough situation on both ends – feeling overwhelmed with contact before you spoke up, and now wondering what’s up with the friendship. I think the question is not about what is she thinking or if you did something wrong, but instead ask yourself what you want. When you are clear on what you want in that friendship or in friendship in general, then you can ask for it and feel confident that it’s OK to want what you want. If it’s not a good match for what the other person wants, then maybe that’s OK. What I want in friendships is to be able to ask for things and for each of us to not take a “no” personally. Easier said than done but for me it’s worth striving for.

  224. Mark Swope says:

    I’ve not worked in this particular situation. However, I wonder if you could suggest a solution that might be viewed as subtle and just between the two of you – a small flag or trinket that you display when you’re truly not receptive to conversation? It’ll be “just your little secret” between the two of you and if you don’t leave it out 100% of the time, your co-worker might be more likely to honor it.

  225. Karin says:

    I have the exact same situation and also, I appreciate good working relations so I often opt out of having talks like these. A change for me came as I realised that my colleague is not sensitive to discussions/debate/conflict as I am, and that my talking to her would probably not stir her in the same way that it would stir me. I simply said to her that I understand that we work in different ways and that I really need uninterrupted time to be able to concentrate. I then asked her if it would be ok if I said her name when she talked loudly with herself (as was the case). She agreed and now I jokingly say “Name… are you talking to yourself or to me?” Mostly, she’s startled that she’s actually talking out loud, apologises and that’s the end of it. She’s a goodhearted person and tries her best to keep her talk internally. 🙂 She won’t completely stop though, as this is how she works, so realising that she will continue enables me to not be irritated with her.

    • Val Nelson says:

      Hi @disqus_mqlx2N4l8C:disqus, that’s a great story. I’m glad you two have a good relationship and aren’t taking each others’ actions personally. That’s probably the key to harmony everywhere! Haha. What a good insight that she wouldn’t be as stirred up as you were when you broached the subject. Sounds like that helped you take the leap into talking about it. I think that’s usually the case. Thanks for role modeling that courage for others.

  226. Jessica says:

    I know this is about a coworker situation, but I stumbled on this and it helps me for a different reason; my partner is extroverted, and I’m introverted. A healthy relationship still had headspace to explore their individual thoughts, but in expression, if you have a different way (my boyfriend talks through everything, and I think silence is the best kind of listening), clashes will come up and fights will happen that get nowhere because they concern the symptoms – they aren’t productive or about core issues. And behavior gets defensive, and next thing you know you’re resenting each other.

    This little bulleted list I will read whenever I am struggling to connect, and while it’s not a cure-all, in terms of deep relationships, these reminders really are essential for the type of personality interplay it involves.

    • Val Nelson says:

      HI @disqus_YZkD2XA4pS:disqus, I’m so glad you find this relevant to other types of situations, not just co-workers. I was hoping that would be the case for readers. I agree it’s still relevant. I hope you’ll post again as you notice the result of trying on some of the things in the bulleted list.

  227. Oliver says:

    Being an introvert at the far end of the introvert-extrovert line according to the most of the tests I’ve taken, and being a programmer in an environment that often gets very chatty (either some talks and jokes not related to work, or brainstrorming by other co-workers, whatever…), I completely understand the need for quiet periods of time. It can get very frustrating when you’re eager to solve a task, especially if it’s a very complex one that requires lots of thinking ahead), but you feel that you can’t hear your own thoughts from all that noise. I guess it’s not that easy in some environments to disconnect from everyone by putting headphones on, as it’s fairly easy in IT-related companies (most of the people understand the need to be “isolated” a bit, without the need to justify yourself).

    However, stepping up a bit and expressing your needs is something that should be considered normal, no need to complain on anyone in particular – just let them know, don’t keep everything inside or it will cause a constant frustration + underperforming at work. Sometimes in the past I’ve even felt repulsion towards certain people, almost taking it personal when there’s a lot of stress at work and I couldn’t focus because of them, while actually nothing of that was happening intentionally. Take care… 🙂

    • Val Nelson says:

      @drndavi:disqus, thank you for sharing your experience. What a good insight you’re pointing to about how even if you can find a way out, such as with headphones, it still might be worth saying something so as not to build resentments.

  228. Flor D. says:

    Headphones!

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